A Sabbatical in Leipzig: Slow, affecting and beautiful

Book review: Reading Adrian Duncan’s second book is like moving through a contemporary art exhibition

Adrian Duncan: There’s painstaking precision to the words and design of his second book, A Sabbatical in Leipzig.

Adrian Duncan: There’s painstaking precision to the words and design of his second book, A Sabbatical in Leipzig.

I can’t get my head around Adrian Duncan’s A Sabbatical in Leipzig. Did I like it? It doesn’t feel like a text that has any interest in being liked. (It even opens with a Leaving Certificate exam question.) You move through this book, as though at a contemporary art exhibition. You’re confronted with a set of images. They’re complex and hard to understand. A vague sense of tedium prevails – you’d have more fun in the gift shop. Then, days later, there it is. That thing you thought was boring, or incomprehensible, has lodged in your mind. Whether or not you liked it doesn’t really matter. It is slow and affecting and really quite beautiful.

A visual artist and former engineer, Duncan brings a different way of seeing to the world of prose. As with his debut, Love Notes from a German Building Site, engineering is central to A Sabbatical in Leipzig. Our narrator is Michael, a retired bridge engineer, living in Bilbao after the death of his girlfriend, Catherine. His oddly calibrated mind guides us through. Each day, he listens to two versions of Schubert’s Trout Quintet (first movement), one from an “album of experimental symphonies”, the other “played by a traditional quintet”. It occurs to him that he should play both pieces of music simultaneously on two separate record players – an endeavour which gives a mild amount of forward propulsion to a narrative which, in truth, has no real truck with moving forward. More precise, perhaps, to say it moves in many directions, or it makes a pattern. Certain motifs (discs, electricity, porcelain, the bogland of his youth, etc) touch off each other, then bend away.

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